[This post was originally written immediately after 2017’s Alt-Right march on Charlottesville and failed to get picked up for publication. It is posted here in observation of his birthday, February 4, 1906. The work is heavily reliant upon Charles Marsh’s Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. ]
It is at Charlottesville and for the fight for justice ahead where the life and works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer matter more than perhaps ever before. The rise of the Alt-Right requires real theological tools and methods against the kind of hate that he saw and fought firsthand. Gone are the days when his words and story can be treated merely as devotional reading and hypotheticals. His life and martyrdom are no longer just models for costly grace and lived faith. Bonhoeffer’s theology is a political and activist theology for our present age and his writings can serve as a workbook for now.
Reading Bonhoeffer and preaching his understanding of the lived and living Gospel is what we require right now. For Americans, he is uniquely suited for our current needs as pastors and laity, as activists and allies. Bonhoeffer excelled in the tradition of high academic European Protestantism, engaging with the theological giants of his day. But it was his own revelatory and revolutionary transformation during his time in the United States that made him the theological dissident that he became. His legacy against the Nazi regime is a martyr’s story, breathtakingly compelling. However, like all martyrs, he is always at risk of the exploitation of fawning hagiography. The truth of Bonhoeffer lies in the trenches and battlefields against hate, racism, and totalitarianism. For Christians, Bonhoeffer belongs at Charlottesville. We must learn and proclaim this truth.
When the Alt-Right marched with tiki torches raised high, shouting “Jews will not replace us” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil,” their evocation of 1933 was loud and clear. Brazenly emboldened by President Trump, without hoods or masks they marched in a fearsome display of newfound aggression. The evening when Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, in a show of force and of things to come, his storm troopers, the Sturmabteilung, each armed with a flaming torch, marched in tight formation through the streets of Berlin. As they stomped passed the observation box, Hitler and his cadre of officers smiled and saluted. The photos and film footage are chilling to watch, much like what we see online.
Against Hitler’s ascent, Bonhoeffer responded swiftly. On Berlin radio, he denounced both Hitler’s authority and the magical thinking of Germany’s demoralized people seeking a bullish leader. Ten minutes into his speech he was cut off, but he was not silenced. Soon, he would realize that there are moments when the Church must engage in direct political action. His 1933 was soon a flurry of theological and political activism, but it was the years immediately prior that set firm his trajectory.
Seeing those torches in Charlottesville and the violence afterward, I wondered what Bonhoeffer did when he watched those torches in Berlin. I immediately reached for Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, not knowing that the author, Charles Marsh, lives in that very town recently under siege. In his accessible and gripping biography, I discovered the Bonhoeffer I did not know – that before Christ the Center, The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together, before the Officers’ Plot and his final days and nights at Tegel Prison, there was Bonhoeffer’s profound experience with Black America. Marsh’s invaluable resource sheds essential light on who Bonhoeffer became and how we can respond with him against hate.
To understand Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his resistance against the Third Reich, one must take into account the formative experiences he had between 1930 and 1931 at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary, Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, and his road trip through the American South. Reinhold Niebuhr’s influence of theological realism paired with Bonhoeffer’s deep involvement with the Black Church and broader African-American community radically transformed him. He took a special interest in racial justice and was significantly disturbed by “the first lynching of 1931” in Marysville, Missouri. He was appalled by the miscarriage of justice in Scottsboro, Alabama, where nine black men were wrongly convicted of raping a young white woman. He saw and fought economic injustice in Harlem.
When we read Bonhoeffer in America, we discover a white, bourgeois man awakening to race, justice, and action. Invited by Union friend Frank Fisher to Abyssinian, Bonhoeffer later wrote, “Only among blacks, who were oppressed, could there be any real religion in this country.” He was a man transformed. The seeds of his theology of dissent that later sprouted and grew tall throughout 1933 were partly sown and watered by his American experience. This is the chapter that we must bring with us to Charlottesville and beyond. This is a theology of dissent for the trenches and for all of America.
Entering the world of the Black Church, Bonhoeffer discovered his “cloud of witnesses,” worked alongside community organizers in the urban canyons of New York and saw the ugly face of racist oppression throughout the Jim Crow South. This chapter of his life is overshadowed by what occurred after his return to Germany. But in the United States, it is here where he shifts from formal, traditional German theology to more pragmatic, actionable and affective theology. Because we focus so much on the end of his life, we ignore, to our collective detriment, how he got there. When we read Bonhoeffer, let us find what this German white man found about Christianity in our own country and its resistant power and role against oppression.
We must listen to the Black voices that speak loudly through Bonhoeffer against our nation’s White Supremacy. Only then can we can understand more fully his writings and act accordingly. He was inspired by Abyssinian’s monumental Adam Clayton Powell, Sr., in developing his idea of the incognito Christ, Jesus dwelling as “an outcast among outcasts” among the destitute. At Union, Bonhoeffer took Niebuhr’s course on ethics in modern literature, reading J. W. Johnson, Booker T. Washington, W. E. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen. He owned Johnson’s God’s Trombones and Book of American Negro Spirituals and to Germany he took back a large collection of recordings of spirituals, much to the bafflement of his German colleagues. His time involved with community organizing and learning about the lives of the Black urban poor deepened his development of costly and cheap grace. When Bonhoeffer asks his reader “Who is Christ?,” that primacy of the relational “I-Thou” question, we cannot ignore where his question comes from and where the answer resides.
Through correspondence we find that his time in America was his watershed moment. His time with socialists and the Black Church radicalized him such that faith in action was discipleship toward Christ, that radical following. Bonhoeffer’s Christ is in and of the urban poor and sick of Harlem, New York. His Christ is in and of the Black families struggling to survive the Jim Crow South. His Christ is that center, that foundational God-Man proclaimed through the Negro spirituals sung in churches and recorded in his treasured collection of vinyls. Yet, as so personally powerful and influential as the Black Church was upon him, he rarely if ever explicitly mentioned it in his landmark writings. But the urgency and the influence is, indeed, there. It is woven with the many strands of high, academic theology in the backdrops of The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together that so many white Christians read and love.
This reality dismantles Bonhoeffer’s writings as primarily devotional for self-edification, and rather for the very difficult and taxing socio-political mandate of living one’s Christian faith over and against capitalism, racism, and fascism. This Bonhoeffer is not that of Eric Metaxas, who fashions a very American Evangelical Bonhoeffer, as pointed out by Marsh, in Metaxas’ own image. My question is will those Evangelicals, who have devoured Metaxas’ American Bonhoeffer that looks so much like them, be able to perceive the evil that Bonhoeffer stood up to. Or will they remain the 81% who struck the Faustian bargain with Trump for their political power and influence. Bonhoeffer doesn’t vote for Trump. He fights against Nazis, especially church Nazis.
Where Marsh describes Bonhoeffer’s resistance to the German church’s nationalistic theology as him “recognizing dissent as a spiritual discipline,” I would argue Bonhoeffer’s time in the States provided the groundwork to enter and sustain that discipline even unto the point of death. As he prophetically wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” That dissent for justice is grounded in the emancipatory struggle against the bondage of racism, hate, and oppression. The Black Church gives strength and power to those who resist hate and form a blockade, arm in arm, against the Alt-Right in Charlottesville and beyond. To struggle against the hate of the Alt-Right and White Supremacists, we must cultivate this spiritual discipline of dissent. This is the opportunity for our “Bonhoeffer Moment.”
To stand with Bonhoeffer at Charlottesville and against all hate and racism requires standing with the Black Church that formed him and gave us the rich, demanding theology we have today. Any Christian who dares to listen to the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer must stand with and listen to People of Color and fight those oppressors in our nation as he fought those in his own. Only then can the Beatitudes, the nature of Christian community, the lived ethics, and even the religionless Christianity described in Tegel be not preserved as purely a white European Christianity, but a way of lived faith that was formed in Harlem and the South.
Marsh describes Bonhoeffer’s trip down through the American South and Mexico, mapping the very highways of his journey. On the way back in their old Oldsmobile, Dietrich and his Swiss classmate Jean Lasserre drove up what is now I-81, through Staunton, Virginia. He probably saw a road sign pointing east. Charlottesville: 40 miles. He wasn’t that far away in 1931 and he is not that far away now.